Empathy for Stormtroopers

Even if you aren’t into science fiction, undoubtedly you’ve heard of Star Wars. People around the world have shared in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo and their expanded universe for over forty years. While the franchise may not be one you indulge in, you’ve likely heard that this past December, the Skywalker saga has come to a close. The ninth of nine movies is now playing in theaters.

For those not well versed in Star Wars lore, the heroes are the Jedi who follow the Light Side of the Force, while the antagonists use the Dark Side. The bad guys also employ the use of a Nazi like regime staffed by soldiers called Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers are clad in identical white and black armor. They are the faceless disposable army that attacks our protagonists. That’s not an unusual narrative element in this genre of film. Often a battle must ensue. And although the good guys get faces, names, and back stories, the enemy side will often have interchangeable minions who can be dispatched and summarily killed without much emotional impact on the audience. This is how it’s always been. However, within the last three Star Wars films, it comes to light that Stormtrooper ranks are filled with people taken as children and forced to be in their army. Many fans have expressed that this was a distressing element of the story’s development – no one wants the enemy humanized. When that happens, one may have remorse, or at least pause, when they are destroyed.

It’s fascinating to see human moviegoers in real life recoil from the thought that fake characters on a screen maybe getting a bum deal by being identically labeled and fired upon when, in fact, each of them is supposedly an individual person. I was amazed to observe the feedback. There has been a nontrivial amount of empathy extended to admittedly “bad guy” characters in a movie. This was achieved by simply reminding the viewers of their humanity.

Oddly enough, people are reticent to extend that same empathy to other humans in real life. We are quick to dismiss that which is “other” as “the enemy”, and we don’t have compassion for those with whom we feel no connection. This is human nature though. From a psychological perspective, we group those who are like us into our “in group” and all others into the “out group”. Fundamental attribution error is the concept that excuses flaws in oneself as circumstantial but explains flaws in others as a characteristic of who they are (e.g. I was late because I had a good reason, but that person was late because they are irresponsible). When people are in our out group we don’t relate to them; it’s easy to apply fundamental attribution errors to them. We are less willing to be understanding towards them. And we are more likely to paint everyone of “their kind” with the same brush. Like a featureless identical Stormtrooper uniform, our preconceived notions about those unlike us can strip them of their humanity, in our minds. We prejudge them. Many times we regard these groups as our enemies. At best, we are merely indifferent to their suffering.

Dehumanizing the “other” allows us to justify our lack of compassion toward their plight. This has implications in government policy, principles of our justice systems, rules of engagement for war, and even Christian behavior. If we think about “foreign migrants” as a monolithic block, it colors our thinking differently than if we knew the story of a single child seeking asylum as a refugee. It’s easy to advocate for a war on an abstract concept like “the War on Drugs” or “the War on Crime” and impose punitive sentencing until we focus on the circumstances of the individual young addict whose story reminds us of someone we know in our own life. Supporting drone strikes against “enemy combatants” that results in “minimal collateral damage” seems justifiable as long as we ignore the fact that some of these insurgents were conscripted as children and are little more than adolescents themselves, and that the collateral damage includes kids and families not unlike our own. It’s easy to spit venom at those who adopt a theological position that’s dissimilar to yours as long as you don’t think about those who hold that view as your brother or sister, who is just as sincere as you are.

Our long held beliefs about our in groups were challenged by Christ. The question posed to the Lord asking “who is my neighbor?” was met with an answer that defied social norms and expectations. Jesus told a story of a good Samaritan – an individual from a group traditionally viewed as being at odds with Jews. And yet Christ demonstrates that ideals of love and kindness were embodied in someone from this group. He humanized the other.

Later John writes to the Church with a reminder that expands on this concept: “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”(I John 4) The people we view as the antagonists in our saga are also our brothers. That was a radical thought in the first century. How much more countercultural is it in the 21st? In this day and age we are divided into distinct camps that despise the “others” in opposing factions. And our churches are not immune to such fractious thinking.

It may feel as uncomfortable as admitting the humanity of Stormtroopers, but I admonish us to begin to view one another as more than a label. When we find ourselves tempted to dismiss someone as “liberal” or “conservative” or “sinner” or “unfaithful”, let’s slow down enough to recall that they are more than the ideas they hold. We are all more than our labels. We are brothers and sisters. If filmmakers were able to make moviegoers empathize with the definitive “bad guys” of a 4 decade drama, most assuredly there is hope that we can develop empathy for the real life people who are our brothers and sisters.

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10125

Labeling others as well as ourselves is a common practice among the “saints”. We do it all the time and the big problem is that it is unfair, wrong and misguided.The main harm is to each of us as we use labels to hurt others and ourselves.
Let’s do something about negative labeling others and ourselves in 2020.
Negative labeling

  • Restricts your potential by keeping you confined to the negative label.
  • It is self-prophetic. If you believe you’re useless, your actions and thoughts will be that of a useless person.
  • You often feel frustrated and unhappy, and often you’re unaware that your thoughts are the cause.
  • It can cause physical symptoms such as migraines, nausea, anxiety attacks, and stomach aches.
  • It is a major contributor to Depression and Anxiety.

Samples of negative labels: Ugly, Stupid, Weak, Fat, Loser, Hopeless, Selfish, Unworthy, Poor, etc.

Being aware when you’re undermining yourself is a positive step in the right direction. Although we know the truths about our self, constantly highlighting weaknesses and mistakes, and calling ourselves names will lead to unhappiness and undermines our potential. The labels we attach to ourselves can be a powerful motivator or detractor. Where the label came from, whether from society or a self judgement, doesn’t matter. If you adopt, reinforce, and feed the label in your mind – you give it power over you.

Sometimes we exaggerate a situation and blow things out of proportion at the height of emotions. Gather the facts and examine them first. If you failed at a task or you did not reach a goal, does that really make you a hopeless, good-for-nothing?

Granted that your self-judgement may be justified. Is this the person you want to be? Are you happy to be labeled this way? If not, there’s always something you can do to change things. And if it’s something you can’t change, then change the way you think about it. Look for your other strengths and label yourself with those, and not highlight the negatives.


Thanks for the important thoughts in this article. We have all been “the other” at some point, and the lines have never been drawn more clearly. I thought that the stormtroopers who were all clones of the bounty hunter were especially effective as a representation of the interchangeable bad guys. They were quite literally cut from the same genetic cloth. Not only did we not see faces, but the clones were understood to be without independent identity or thought.

When we are approached by a newcomer, whether the arena is religion, politics, or whatever matter we find foundational, it’s very easy to see another clone. We are called to do better.


I appreciate your article…there is much to self-examine in it. Thank-you.

Unfortunately, too many Christian groups do a disservice to the “others” by making it clear who they are and why they are not part of the “group”. I don’t need to name the “labels” because most of us know what they are. No empathy, no compassion…just because they are “different”. Their humanity is stripped away and they are “less than”.


As a point of interest, the Methodist are splitting over gay clergy and marriage. They have tried to come to a compromise position but were unable to bridge the divide


To the contrary, if there were a denomination who would be well versed with Star War principles, it has to be the SDA church for the simple reason that the Star Wars is the Great Controversy redux for the 21st century.


The same may happen within Adventism- depending upon who and what takes the helm next.

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I agree that a division might happen.

Actually this division will demonstrate whether liberal Methodists, a church whose Liberals are very close to ours, can run a successful enterprise. As far as I can see all the liberal churches so far have not been able to make a go. Liberal people are just don’t see the importance of evangelism, and emphasize different issues. They just don’t know how to retain membership.

Now, Methodists may have worked that out, but whatever happens, liberal Adventists can get an indication on what they can expect.

If they decide on a break, good luck to them.

I don’t know if the “division” will be planned or unplanned…but it is more likely than not. But the ball can be kicked down the road for a longer period of time. I think it has a lot to do whether or not the SDA Church can affectively compromise. If it cannot- eventually it may happen and the next President will be the bellwether.

Don’t believe that you can compare a Main Stream denomination to Adventism overall. Adventism is a rather quirky religion- so who knows how and what will exactly happen.

As far as membership goes…I tend to think that it is not theology that is driving the demise of Christian churches but rather the proliferation of secularism. Look at what has happened in Europe which was the birthplace of Protestantism.

"If they decide on a break, good luck to them."

Since you brought up the United Methodists as an example…the agreement to split was over LGBTQ issues. Eventually, the SDA Church may have to do the same over that or WO. Time will tell, but I hope and pray that the decisions are Spirit led. I see little of this in the decisions made by the current administration.

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The Methodists had an effective mission thrust into Africa about 100 yrs ago resulting in a fairly healthy church here. I believe they have about 4M there, and about maybe 5M here, or thereabouts. They have been discussing gay issues for years, and eventually it came to a head with the more liberal not willing to accept a compromise plan of some sort. A church board of leaders judged that homosexuality was not compatible with the book of disciple they had, and this prompted the more liberal to decide there was no path to acceptance of homosexual practice as OK. So when various proposals came to the body as a whole, and the group voted not to accept gay clergy or marriage, they decide to separate.

Although there are differences between us, our theology of salvation and governance are similar. And our voted stand on homosexuality is pretty much the same as well.

I agree that the choice of president (Like Lincoln) could decide it. If he is compromiser, there will be some sort of attempt at reconciliation, on the grounds that WO is allowed where it is wanted. I don’t think that is likely. I do not think Wilson will be re-elected. But I don’t think a pro-WO will be either. The best that can be expected is a man sympathetic, though not pro-WO. He might be able to broker a compromise. The votes at Fall Counsel did not bode well for WO advocates. The voted warnings were pretty stark. And the margins of passage were not overwhelming, but not that close either.

Unless the liberals get some sop thrown their way, they will leave. That is how I see it. And I think it would be a mistake.

As I have said before- either there is compromise or there will be a broken church in time. It really has more to do with the “conservatives” than the “liberals” at this point and time, Allen. It is interesting to watch.

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